According to Greek mythology, the nymph Callisto was transformed into a bear when she broke her vow of chastity by falling in love with the god Zeus. After her death, Zeus carried her to the heavens where she became the constellation of the Great Bear. Auerbach's setting for the legend is Hampstead Heath, in north London. This painting was commissioned by the collector David Wilkie, who wanted a work inspired by Titian. Auerbach responded with a subject that might have appealed to the Renaissance master.